Zone of Anecdotes

John Mullan

  • The Divine Husband by Francisco Goldman
    Atlantic, 465 pp, £15.99, January 2005, ISBN 1 84354 404 0

One day, María de las Nieves Moran, the heroine of Francisco Goldman’s The Divine Husband, unexpectedly receives a letter from a woman who had, many years earlier, been her fellow novice in a convent. This is Guatemala (though it is never named) in the 1870s. The country’s convents have been closed by the government; the nuns have long since fled or gone into hiding. So how strange that María, pregnant, sacked from her job at the British legation, abandoned by her lover, should receive this message of consolation (‘God sends misfortune to those he most loves’) from out of the blue. Someone is watching over her. María is an enthusiast for Middlemarch but now realises that life outdoes fiction. The unexpected, intimate voice from the past makes her think that ‘one of the ways life was superior to novels was its way of sending you totally unforeseen surprises without it seeming in bad artistic taste, or a pitiably strenuous way of resolving a narrative into a moral or sentimental lesson, or at least into a credible ending.’ It is one of several occasions in The Divine Husband when the author includes some explanation of his own ambition. This is a novel of connections and coincidences, of people and themes continually re-encountered, but it refuses the strenuous shapeliness of most novels. It is determined not to be inferior to life.

Its surprises, therefore, are avowedly not part of a properly arranged plot. Though the signs of authorial arrangement are many – we are shifted backwards and forwards between four distinct periods in its heroine’s life – the novel’s episodes are disposed to illuminate themes or generate echoes, not to form a grand narrative. This seems to be because it follows the history of the Americas in the late 19th century and doesn’t want to make that history preordained or narratively neat. María de las Nieves is an invented character who has to find her way to something like fulfilment through thickets of energetically researched history. It is necessary for a novel which constantly crosses between countries (the USA and Guatemala) and languages (English and Spanish) that its central character be of mixed origins herself. María is discovered as a little girl in the mountain forests, a half-wild child puffing a homemade cigar and speaking a ‘demon language’ (which turns out to be English). She is the daughter of a ‘Yankee immigrant’, a crazed Irish-American would-be coffee planter who has been killed by a kick from his mule, and a young Indian woman. The wealthy coffee farmer who finds them brings the girl and her mother back to his hacienda: María is installed as his daughter’s playmate, the mother as a privileged servant.

María has been named in honour of a miracle performed on the date of her birth: the Virgin turned ‘a very sinful pueblo in the desert’ into snow, in order to purify it. Our heroine soon emerges from childhood to become a novice at the convent where she was a pupil. Much of the novel’s long and rather wonderful first chapter is given over to her initiation into the ways of her fellow brides of Christ, her religious reading and the fantasies it breeds. Goldman has deplored the stereotyping of all Latin American fiction as ‘magic realism’, in the magnetic field of García Márquez. Yet he entertainingly dallies with the subgenre in the saints’ stories that the nuns, including María, drink in. They dwell on miracles and visions, their imaginations quickened by self-mortification and sleeplessness. María devotes herself to the vida of Sor María de Agreda, a (real) 17th-century nun who specialised in ‘mystical bilocation’. Without leaving her convent in Spain she would convert heathens in New Mexico. Indians told missionaries that they had seen ‘the beautiful girl in blue robes who came down out of the sky and went among them preaching’. Though she escapes the convent, María becomes ‘well trained in deep meditation and spiritual visualising’. Her punishing religious training continues to provide her with explanations of her life.

The novel’s title refers to María’s betrothal to Christ when she becomes a nun. She yearns for her ‘divine husband’, and when she has left the convent attracts and rejects suitors who are too much of this world. Among them are two characters whose ambitions and ethnically complicated backgrounds are woven into the narrative. One is a British diplomat, Wellesley Bludyar, who is in Guatemala, it slowly emerges, in order to foment plots and coups in surrounding countries. (Goldman here unravels historical analogies for much later covert interventions by the United States in Central America.) Another is Mack Chinchilla, a half-Indian entrepreneur raised in New York, whose friends are all Jews involved, like him, in the coffee trade: the novel is interested in the heady promises of commerce and the surprising connections made by trade. Neither of these men gets past our heroine’s frosty carapace. (‘Snows’ is her nickname at the British legation.) She believes, however, that she has found her divine husband in the idealistic, high-talking, poet and visionary whose classes in literary composition she attends. He is a person whom Goldman has not invented: José Martí.

Martí was a leader of the Cuban revolution against Spain, and was killed in a skirmish in 1895. He was also a prolific writer, and chunks of his work, translated into English by Goldman, find their way into the novel. As a young man he lived in Guatemala City, teaching literary evening classes for young ladies. The daughter of the leader of Guatemala’s liberal revolution, María García Granados, apparently fell in love with him. Martí was already engaged to a Cuban woman, and soon after he left to marry her María García Granados died – of a broken heart, it was said. She became the subject of one of his most famous poems, ‘La Niña de Guatemala’, apparently still widely known in Guatemala. The poem perpetuates the story, with an odd mix of anguish and relish: ‘Dicen que murió de frío:/Yo sé que murió de amor’ (‘They say that she died of cold,/But I know that she died of love’). Martí later lived in New York for 15 years, and there is a large equestrian statue of him at the end of the Avenue of the Americas.

Martí keeps reappearing in the novel, yet stays marginal. Goldman is happy to puff the mystery of his private life – did he have a child by his New York landlady? – but not to provide any fictional solutions. The unhappiness of his marriage is on record, which is enough for Goldman to give Martí a roving eye, without ever telling us what he got up to. To make things simpler, his wife is a non-character here: there is nothing a biographer could quarrel with. Once you have cottoned on to Goldman’s method, you realise that poor María is not going to get much more than high-flown poetical chat from this great man. She is allowed one sublime kiss: ‘So it was then that it happened, that incredible kiss, which from now on would accompany her on her lifelong journey.’ Anything more would interfere with the record. What is less clear is how much we are supposed to admire Martí. Goldman buried himself for weeks in the Martí library in Cuba, but readers who know nothing but this novel may wonder whether the secular saint is worthy of reverence. He can be a little buffoonish, a flirtatious sensualist making pronouncements on love (‘Love is a wild beast that needs to be fed anew every day’), always ready to wow the señoritas with a new line of radicalism or a soupçon of verse.

Another historical character in the novel is Justo Rufino Barrios, Guatemala’s brutal dictator after its ‘liberal’ revolution. Evidently he really did fall in love with a girl whose family hid her in a nunnery, and he did obtain her as his wife by closing down all the convents. He was killed in battle and she fled to New York. In the novel, renamed, she is María’s childhood friend and eventually her companion in exile in New York. Most of the historical texture of the book is pieced together from personal stories, fictional life histories of migration and miscegenation made out of material from Goldman’s reading. ‘An extraordinary story lay behind the life of Salomón Nahón, and that story was itself full of stories.’ No character can step into the novel without introducing a digressive narrative that takes us through some eccentric family history of economic striving and romantic attachment. And such a story can hardly be unravelled without further historical analogy and illustration. So when we hear about Salomón Nahón, whose father and uncles uprooted themselves from Morocco to become coffee planters in Central America, we must also be told about other Jewish pioneers who made their fortunes in the American tropics. And this turns into a list of the other types of immigrants driven from Spain by the Inquisition, who have flowed into ‘the unfathomable mongrel river of the Americas’. Sometimes following all these stories is a little like listening to someone telling endless anecdotes about people you don’t know. Goldman calls it tracing ‘our hemispheric DNA’.

The Divine Husband considers the Americas as a connected whole, and is unusual in pursuing the relationships between North and Central America without anti-colonialist animus or righteousness. The sense of geography is the best thing about the book, the ‘bilocation’ of María’s adolescent religious fantasy becoming the novel’s narrative method. María emigrates to the USA – stretches of the novel take place on board ship as she travels with her daughter to San Francisco – and ends up in New York. Snowy 19th-century Manhattan is as credibly conjured as various Guatemalan hick towns, Goldman’s prose interleaved with Martí’s elaborate newspaper accounts of the city. The novel unites the various parts of Goldman’s own family history, which has been divided between Massachusetts, Guatemala and New York. And the prose moves between his two languages, English and Spanish, without translating or explaining. Goldman fashions peculiar English syntax for characters who are talking in inaccurate Spanish. He has Martí’s eloquence implode when he grapples with English. María is employed as a translator by the British, though as Wellesley Bludyar says, a rather unusual one: ‘A Yankee-Indian, anti-Liberal, anticlerical, who often speaks like a Freemason yet also seems to admire the Jesuits and certain apparently monstrously gifted nuns of centuries past.’

Goldman’s zest for tracing the skeins of his hemisphere’s DNA is clear enough. The problem is the way he has chosen to include the material. He has talked in interviews of becoming absorbed, even too absorbed, in research for this novel. Sometimes the research is still in undigested slabs, easily slotted in thanks to an intrusive narrator who presents himself on the first page and thereafter appears whenever it is convenient. When he wants to tell us of the one surviving note to Martí from María García Granados, he just tells us. After María reads a passage of purple reportage in a newspaper written by Martí, Goldman reflects academically on Martí’s journalism: ‘The crónica form, as practised and developed by certain young writers in Latin-American newspapers at the time, was the laboratory of the Modernist poetic style.’ The italics indicate a quotation from the poet Rubén Darío, writing about Martí. It’s only surprising that we are not provided with the library classmark.

The combination of history and biography with fiction are likely to make an uninformed reader a little uneasy. Are there clearly marked borders between the discovered and the invented? The uneasiness is fine in itself: it might make you go away and find something out. Less easy to accept is the way that Goldman forgets and then remembers the intrusive narrator as it suits him. In the last chapter, the narrator is belatedly revealed as a researcher commissioned by María’s now elderly daughter, Mathilde, to write an account of her mother. There he is, in the daughter’s New England mansion, sitting at the old oak table at which her mother once sat reading about female saints and their visions. ‘You may find this unbelievable – I know I did, a little.’ He undertakes, naturally, much of the archive trawling performed by Goldman himself. Yet he only becomes prominent near the end of a novel that has, throughout, given us the inner thoughts and private acts of the main characters. The fictional research project is a conceit used only when it accommodates historical material, particularly relating to Martí, that the author wants to include.

This is not to deny that the miscellaneousness of The Divine Husband has its pleasures. The nameless Central American nation that Goldman has invented from his knowledge of Guatemala is a zone of bathetic anecdotes. The country’s first balloon flight has its climax in a small dog being parachuted from the basket (I presume that this is a ‘true story’). An American photographer arrives to sell prints of the capital’s leading beauties (one week Maria finds that she is number eight in his popularity poll). The state’s first revolutionary president is keener on playing chess than running the place. Characters return, lines of narrative recur, new coincidences remind us of episodes from many pages back. That parachuting dog lands in the back garden of an aristocratic lady, where the remaining nuns from María’s order are living secretly in outhouses. It is the ‘Miracle of the Puppy in the Garden’, proof to the nuns that God smiles on their clandestine convent.

Such connections are desultory and without special design, but there is also a frankness about Goldman’s pursuit of theme and coincidence. In the novel’s second paragraph we are introduced to a conceit that explains, with untoward explicitness, the continual reappearance of balloons and inflated bladders throughout the book. ‘What if love, earthly or divine, is to history as air is to a rubber balloon?’ Guatemala is an important source of latex, which eventually enables Mack Chinchilla to found a rubber-goods dynasty in New England. Every chapter includes an anecdote about things made from blowing air into rubber. An epilogue asks: ‘What’s more American than balloons? And what’s spookier?’ The stuff that was once ‘a sacred substance to American Indians from Mexico to Brazil’ becomes the material of celebration and idiocy: ‘Balloons represent our jubilation.’ But also, clearly, rubber is supposed to be like the material of Goldman’s narrative, made to float by human breath.

The novel accommodates passages of lore, including a paragraph on ‘the subtleties of vulcanisation’ during the manufacture of rubber boots in the late 19th century. That a minor character, Don José, is an umbrella mender and maker of rubber goods, including washable condoms, seems reason enough for this. That María’s father dabbled in cochineal production permits a lengthy digression describing, in interesting detail, the farming of cochineal beetles for dye. The explanation is given by Mack to María – a highly ineffective attempt at wooing her. But then such passages are easily introduced because Goldman’s characters are always teaching, always pronouncing on favourite topics. José Martí is no exception: a hero perhaps, but as reimagined by Goldman a non-stop lecturer too.

All this, inflated by its author’s enthusiasm, might be enough. (Though occasionally the prose, which can’t resist an extra adjective, and is fattened with similes, does seem puffed up.) Yet Goldman’s desire to make a novel of the Americas does not produce especially human characters. His heroine is as remote when she suddenly discovers passion as she was when she was being cold. The frequent, unpredictable time shifts are partly to blame. They may allow Goldman his theme gathering, but the price he pays is an erosion of character. María is an adolescent girl and then she is a mother living in New York and then she is a young woman working at the British legation in her home country and then she is on the boat travelling to America. Back and forth, back and forth, but with other characters’ stories interleaved, with their own time shifts, so that in the end we are denied any sense of María becoming a person. We are told of her periods of ‘seething introspection’, yet this is more asserted than shown. Does she ever escape the caricature of nun-like temptress, aloof and alluring, that various male characters take her to be? There is one big question with which the narrative teases us – who is the father of her child? Yet once María has left her religious order, her inner life seems to disappear, and when we find out we are hardly interested any more. If there were a plot, the revelation would explain everything. Here, being a surprise that Goldman would think is like ‘life’, it explains nothing at all.